On the job during COVID-19, Part 3: The tech guy

Ontarians are stuck at home. A whole lot of them are binging on Netflix and YouTube. Can the system take it?
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 27, 2020
In normal times, the highest network usage for residential internet comes on Sunday evening around 7 p.m. (iStock.com/courtneyk)

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In January of this year, TVO.org ran three articles asking whether and what Canada had learned from the SARS outbreak of 2003. At the time, we had hoped that the novel coronavirus that had emerged in Wuhan, China, would be contained. That didn’t happen, and now Canada, alongside most countries in the world, is coping with what has quickly become the most serious threat to life and public safety this country has seen since the Second World War. With Ontario under a state of emergency, TVO.org is interviewing the front-line personnel we don’t often hear from, the ones keeping society functioning while millions of us stay safe at home. Today: an interview with Matt Stein, of telecommunications provider Distributel, on how and why your internet is slowing down, and the humans (and computers!) trying to hold the line.

(Author’s note: It took three attempts to successfully place the telephone call for this interview. The first two attempts resulted in unspecified network errors and could not be completed.)

Matt Gurney: Other Matt — Matts of the world unite! — I want you to explain this to me like I’m an idiot. Tell me how the internet works.

Matt Stein: [laughs] Well, okay. Let’s start at the first step — you have a smartphone in your hand. And that connects to your home’s wireless — Wi-Fi — router. And that connects to your modem. That’s the part of the internet that’s inside your house. And it connects to the part of the internet that’s outside your house, usually physically, like with cable or a fibre-optic line, or maybe using cellular networks. But it connects to the local network outside your house, and that community network then connects to the big data centres through what we call the “backhaul” part of the network. Those data centres connect to each other, and information moves through the network from the device in your hand to a data centre and back. The connections between the data centres are huge. That’s basically the internet. 

Gurney: And what the hell is wrong with it? It’s slow. I’m seeing people complain of this everywhere. I’m regularly experiencing failures, and I’m not alone. I’ve even seen some of the telecom providers put out statements acknowledging issues. Is the system failing? Because now would be a really, really bad time to lose communications.

Stein: It’s not failing. It’s actually working properly. But that means sometimes it has to slow down. Data is still moving, so it hasn’t “failed.” But it’s congested. I was explaining this to someone earlier, and they thought I was making a dark pandemic joke, but I’m not. That’s the term we use — congestion, like traffic congestion. We are using the internet network in a way that we never thought we would. The time and place of use has changed dramatically.

Gurney: What do you mean by that?

Stein: Well, think of it this way: the community networks I mentioned before, right? The ones that link your home or business to the backhaul? We have built those to handle the normal traffic levels — so we have networks that serve your home and networks that serve your businesses. The ones that serve businesses are busy during the day, and the ones that serve your home are busy at night. These aren’t actually different networks; it’s just a matter of how much capacity is in any place, and that capacity is determined by the combined local business and residential needs. But no one’s at work. So some of that physical network capacity isn’t being used. That use has shifted to other parts of the network — because we’re all at home. Also, the time of use has changed. Do you know when the highest network usage is for residential internet?

Gurney: I honestly have no idea.

Stein: It’s Sunday night, at around 7 p.m., local time. This is consistent. People settle down on their couch and start streaming a movie. There are other peaks throughout the week, normally all at around 7 p.m. But Sunday night is the big one. And guess what? The networks are now Sunday-evening-levels of busy all the time. Wednesday at 2 p.m. is just as busy as our former peak. 

Gurney: What’s driving that? I understand your point about using part of the network for all the traffic that used to be more distributed, but are we using it differently?

Stein: Yes. We can see this already. Netflix and YouTube are most of the internet — yeah, okay, the other streaming services, too, but Netflix and YouTube are huge. Checking your email? Doesn’t use up a lot of bandwidth. Streaming a song on Spotify? Marginal. Social media and Google searches? Basically nothing. But live video streaming? That’s the majority of the internet’s bandwidth, and it’s mostly on Netflix and YouTube. When you sit down and watch a 4K video, that stresses your local in-house Wi-Fi, and it stresses your local community network. And, right now, because we’re all at home, we’re using these services more.

Gurney: What about video conferencing? All these businesses that are now operating remotely are doing video chats … 

Stein: Yep, that uses a lot of data. More than checking CNN.com or TVO.org! [laughs] But it’s not as much as high-quality video and audio for streaming a movie. 

Gurney: And now all of this is happening at once. I’m at home doing a video conference with colleagues. My son is on the iPad watching YouTube. My daughter is having a FaceTime conversation with her grandmother. My wife is downloading stuff for work. 

Stein: Exactly. And we are seeing some response already. Google gets it. They’ve made the decision to cut back their default quality setting for YouTube. You notice it, but it’s still very high quality. And it’s making a big difference. Europe was having major bandwidth issues, so Netflix cut back there. They haven’t done that in North America yet. They should. 

Gurney: Would it matter? I don’t know the technical details of this stuff. But let’s say YouTube and Netflix cut their bandwidth by, I don’t know, half. Is that realistic? What would happen?

Stein: They could do that. People would notice a drop in quality. But if Netflix and YouTube did that, you wouldn’t have called me. There’d be no congestion. They’re so huge that the two of them could address the problem on their own.

Gurney: That’s incredible.

Stein: It is. But I should tell you, a lot of the problems are inside the home, too. Yeah, there’s a lot of network congestion right now. There is. But people are also using their in-home Wi-Fi more. You said that you’re video conferencing, your son is watching YouTube, you’re FaceTiming … that’s a huge load on your Wi-Fi router. Probably more than you normally use it for.

Gurney: My pandemic survival strategy is letting YouTube raise my kids while I work. It’s terrible, but that’s the only way I can get stuff done.

Stein: [laughs] A lot of people have kids, and they all need to stay sane — for sure. And all that YouTube isn’t just straining the community networks. It’s straining the router in your home. So I’d encourage any customer to get a new top-of-the-line router. A Google Mesh or Eero makes a great product. Most of the ISPs [Internet Service Providers] have their own version. You can fix a lot of the problems inside your home.

Gurney: Let’s talk about cellphones for a second. Because I’m getting a lot of dropped calls. I’m having a hard time making calls. People are telling me they can’t call me. I tweeted about this a few days ago, and I got messages from Canadians all over the country, on all different providers, and it’s the same everywhere. The network is wobbly. In big-picture terms, is it the same problem?

Stein: Yep. Absolutely. In big-picture terms, it’s the same. And it’s not just cellphones. It’s telephones, period. We’re using them more, we’re using them differently, and we’re using them at different times and places. But the congestion problem is a little bit different. Think of a highway. It can get congested. But with phone calls, we have lanes — “ports” — and we have thousands and thousands of those. Lanes aren’t the problem. On-ramps are. There are computers that actually have to do the work of connecting the calls. That’s the on-ramp. And they’re swamped. 

Gurney: So once a call is connected, it’s “in a lane,” and you’re probably okay, but getting onto the highway in the first place … 

Stein: Yep. You got it. The on-ramps are a problem. The computers that connect your phone to a different phone, that’s just a series of steps in a process, but they have to be done. Let me tell you what to do: make all your calls five minutes after the hour.

Gurney: [laughs] Why?

Stein: All these businesses that are now operating remotely? I bet they all have scheduled calls. And they’re all going to be at round times: 4:00 p.m. 11:30 a.m. So you’ve got thousands of people all making and receiving thousands of calls all in the same few seconds. Wait five minutes. You’ll have an easier time. Phones are just computers that connect to each other, and we’re overloading them with too many requests at the same time.

Gurney: So now that we’re in this mess, and we don’t know how long it’s going to last, what can we do? Like, right now, can we add capacity?

Stein: We are adding capacity. Every day. All the telecom providers. That’s going to ease the current level of congestion — we might just use that up, but we are adding capacity. Some of that is a matter of weeks. We could add some capacity locally in, say, four weeks from starting. But a lot of the big stuff is, like, a six-month project, maybe a year. So all the capacity we add now might come online after this is all over. We hope it will be over, anyway. 

Gurney: What does “adding capacity” mean? Are we talking guys in reflective vests laying lines? Are these guys in cleanrooms turning new server racks on? Is this software?

Stein: All of that. But not so much guys in reflective vests. It’s more computer support. More computers and guys at keyboards. But here’s a problem. Let me give you an example. Let’s say we decide we need more data connections between Toronto and Vancouver. I’ve got 10 “lanes,” and I want to go to 20. I can call around the country to providers who can make those connections, and they aren’t going to sell it to me without a three-year contract. I’ll have to take that capacity for three years. Could they sell it on shorter terms? Sure. But we’re in the middle of this crisis now, and we’re trying to change everything at once. And we know the experience of this is going to be different in a few months. We’re adding capacity as quick as we can, but that means construction; it means the processes of how it works — guys at keyboards — and it also means negotiating contracts. 

Gurney: Is it possible to ration the internet? We’re in a major emergency now. Could we, in some way — I don’t know if this is technically possible — but could we establish tiers of the internet? Could we say, okay, the banks, the military, dispersed government agencies, health-care providers, and emergency-response services — they absolutely need to be online, so they get first crack at bandwidth? And, after that, we have all the stuff that’s not that critical but also doesn’t need much bandwidth? And, after that, we say, okay, whatever is left goes to the streaming services?

Stein: Oh, yeah. For sure. There is no technical reason we can’t do that. The telecom providers could do that internally. Honestly, we wouldn’t want to — we don’t want to tell Canadians what their priorities should be. But that could happen. And, if it had to, it would. But, actually, right now, we have the opposite situation — the CRTC [Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission] has rules that prevent us from doing that. But that could change. We could. 

But, honestly? We don’t need to. Netflix could fix this. The federal government wouldn’t even need to order it. Can’t they just ask? The government doesn’t want to anger people who love their Netflix and need entertainment more than ever right now, but it’s going to happen. If Netflix doesn’t want to do it and anger customers, Ottawa should just ask it to. “Lower your default bandwidth.” Done! That solves this. It’s resolved. 

I really wish they would. But that would leave us with a lot of upset Canadians. We’re all at home. Kids are at home. Streaming services are keeping us sane. But YouTube has lowered their bandwidth already, and Netflix should. If they won’t, the government should stop pondering and start doing. 

Editor’s note: Several hours after this interview was conducted, Netflix announced that it was reducing its use of bandwidth in Canada by 25 per cent.​​​​​​​

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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